“If you think that the key to greater willpower is being harder on yourself, you are not alone. But you are wrong. Study after study shows that self-criticism is consistently associated with less motivation and worse self-control. It is also one of the single biggest predictors of depression, which drains both “I will” power and “I want” power. In contrast, self-compassion—being supportive and kind to yourself, especially in the face of stress and failure—is associated with more motivation and better self-control. Consider, for example, a study at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, that tracked the procrastination of students over an entire semester. Lots of students put off studying for the first exam, but not every student made it a habit. Students who were harder on themselves for procrastinating on their first exam were more likely to procrastinate on later exams than students who forgave themselves. The harder they were on themselves about procrastinating the first time, the longer they procrastinated for the next exam! Forgiveness—not guilt—helped them get back on track.”
~ Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. from The Willpower Instinct
We tend to be more critical and much harder on ourselves than we are about others. It can seem natural and even adaptive to either resist our emotional pain when we make mistakes by blaming others or distracting ourselves so that we can soldier on with our lives. Often, however, we are punishingly hard on ourselves to insure that we don’t repeat the same mistakes, turn into total slackers or even allow others to take advantage of us. Research shows that there is pervasive fear among many of us that letting go of anxiety, guilt and shame will make us lose our motivation. But, that is just not true. In fact, research shows that self-compassion predicts better re-engagement with goals following set-backs, more willingness to be accountable for our role in how things went wrong, willingness to receive and act on feedback — all of these qualities are excellent precursors to changing behaviors.
Everybody makes mistakes and experiences setbacks. How we handle these setbacks matters more than the fact that they happened. In her address at the 2011 Stanford Happiness Conference McGonigal states that forgiveness and self-compassion are actually “not about letting ourselves off the hook for mistakes, but [are about] choosing to use our own happiness and our desire to be in connection with others as opposed to using guilt, shame and fear as primary motivators. Self-compassion helps us [both] approach things in life that give us meaning and holds us accountable when we get in our own way.” How great is that?
Kelly McGonigal at the Stanford Happiness Conference 2011: